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Prostitution in Juba, the inside story

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 00:00 -- BY JOYCE JOAN WANGUI
a sex worker posing outside her room, waiting for a client
A sex worker waiting for clients outside her room in Juba
a typical brothel at Customs sex camp, made of papyrus
A typical brothel at Customs sex camp, made of papyrus
Michele Perry with Cathy Groenendijk, head of Juba-based NGO, Confident Children out of Conflict
Michele Perry with Cathy Groenendijk, head of Juba-based NGO, Confident Children out of Conflict

Phostine Anyango tossed and turned in her sleep. She was unable to sleep. She agonised the whole night about her future. The mother of four beautiful children was about to make a decision that would dramatically change her life. Was she willing to abandon her nine-year marriage in search of riches in Juba, South Sudan?

She was jobless. Her husband was a casual labourer. Life in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums was unbearable. She recalled almost tearfully the days she used to sell doughnuts. Those were hard and tough times. Today, her children were out of school. She had to end their poverty-stricken life. Her elder sister Auma resides in Juba where she engages in prostitution. She had put up a major argument for Anyango to join her.

For days, Anyango tearfully agonised. But each day she stared at the empty stove and looked into her children’s hungry eyes, she got lured. Eventually she decided to travel to the newfound land of opportunities. Auma, a seasoned prostitute, had perfected the art. She was even constructing a stone house at her rural home in Kisumu from her proceeds. Prostitution in Juba, says Auma, is very lucrative. She is able to target the crème de la crème with absolute ease.

Anyango joined hundreds of East African girls flocking into Juba daily to trade in flesh. Since South Sudan gained its independence in July 2010, its capital city Juba became a fast growing metropolitan city. It attracts investors, tourists, NGOs and sex workers from neighbouring countries. Kenyan girls have outsmarted the rest in the world’s oldest trade. Cathy Groenendijk, head of a Juba-based NGO, Confident Children out of Conflict, says: “Kenyans are street-smart. They are considered the top of the ladder in this trade.”

After several days of research and reading, I found out that Kenyan girls are taken to Juba by traffickers who include relatives, friends, recruiting agencies and South Sudanese men. My research led me to a house in Nairobi’s Ngumo estate. The house, occupied by South Sudanese nationals, operates as an agency that takes women to Juba. Their list of jobs ranges from bankers, hoteliers, waitresses, teachers among others. I met five girls waiting for their documents to be processed. They each had to part with a registration fee of Sh3,000, a valid passport, a KCSE certificate and a medical certificate. The entire process which takes one month eventually costs each applicant Sh60,000.

Once complete, two employees of the agency take the girls to Juba by bus. An inside source who strictly spoke on condition of anonymity says the girls are taken to brothels and oriented in the sex market. This particular recruiting agency liaises with brothel owners in Juba, mainly owned by ex-military South Sudanese officials. The girls find themselves trapped into sexual slavery with no means of escape. A further probe on the legality of this agency could only land me in murky waters. I decided to check with the Ministry of Labour's National Employment Bureau only to realise that the agency is not registered and none of the officials know of its existence.

Though prostitution is illegal, it has grown rapidly, causing sleepless nights to Juba authorities. They fear the city could soon degenerate into a sex tourism destination. It is estimated that the population of sex workers in Juba stands between 3,500 and 10,000. They are spread out in major sex hot spots namely Jebel, Gumbo, Customs and Gudele markets.

These spots are characterised by numerous brothels, commonly referred to as ‘sex camps’ which masquerade as ‘lodges’. A first time visitor would be tricked by the term, only to end up in the hands of prostitutes. Interestingly, the demand for sex trade here is as high as the supply.

In many UN organisations, NGOs and other foreign owned companies, work policies have no family package; hence most male clients relocate without their wives. In a bid to quench their sexual thirst, they are forced to have sex with the variety of prostitutes scattered in Juba. A spot check by this reporter within Jebel and the Queen of Sheba Hotel spotted many UN vehicles at the exact time the sex work commences.

Jebel is the most preferred sex spot. Located 8km west of Juba City, it is by far the cleanest and most organised. It is home to all types of prostitutes. Customs, located in the heart of Juba town, is a heap of dilapidated sex camps built from decrepit structures made of papyrus and tin and old plastic sheeting.

According to CCC, the Juba-based NGO that rehabilitates street children and sex workers, an estimated 400 to 600 sex workers live in this congested makeshift brothel. I visited these places severally and discovered that some prostitutes, particularly Congolese, women live with their children. Many of the children were born inside the sex camps. With no proper upbringing, there is fear of the young ones ending up like their mothers.

I marvelled at the women’s ability to endure the stench of rotten garbage that hangs around the camps. Their clients, some rich and affluent, are not bothered by the filth that abounds: “Well, if a man wants sex, he can have it anywhere,” explains Miriam Kasonga, a Congolese woman.

Prostitution in Juba brings with it bondage, crime, involuntary servitude and even human trafficking. Women face unique challenges such as scarcity of condoms, inability to access ARV drugs for those infected with HIV, refusal of some clients to use condoms, and harassment by police.

Ironically, some girls have eschewed these challenges. They are making a killing out of the sex work through certain survival skills: “I came here to create wealth, so I target rich Dinkasb(tall, dark Southerners) and Arabs from Khartoum, who pay me in dollars,” explains Ruth. Ruth will never live in a sex camp and has managed to get a ‘steady boyfriend’ who pays her rent in an up-market residence. “I make close to $300 (Sh25,200) per night because I follow rich men in their hotel rooms.” She calls herself a self-made prostitute who is not under the mercy of pimps, like numerous others.To excel in Juba, says Ruth, you must strive to package yourself.

Gut-wrenching decisions

Prostitution in Juba is multi-faceted. Some women enter into the trade voluntarily while others are lured or coerced into it. Others who are gainfully employed in Juba supplement their income through prostitution.

Majority however are trapped into sexual bondage. They endure violence and humiliation. Another section engages in transactional sex, a common trend among Kenyan girls. While women admit that they make quick money in the trade, the dynamics force them to make gut-wrenching decisions.

One Fatuma Abdallah admitted that she had to share a used condom which rotated among three sex workers: “In our brothel, we are so poor and desperate. We cannot even afford to buy condoms. The little money I make out of selling my body is only enough to feed me,” she confesses. Fatuma is a 17-year-old school dropout who hails from Nairobi’s Eastleigh area. Her aunt, who travelled with her to Juba in 2011, introduced her to prostitution.Cathy Groenendijk of CCC notes that when the body becomes the only asset for a woman, prostitution becomes an option.

In Juba, sex trade is mainly fuelled by foreigners although some young South Sudanese girls have learnt the tricks. It occurs in sex camps. Ethiopian sex workers are scattered around big hotels like the famous Queen of Sheba and Juba Bridge Hotel. Some even engage in sexual acts on the road side or on the hotel corridors. “We always want to be unique from the rest. We act as strip dancers, escort girls or waitresses, where we solicit for sex from our clients,” said a young Ethiopian who could neither disclose her name nor age.

The girls complained that most male clients refused to use condoms. This exposes them to STIs and HIV/Aids. An Ethiopian veteran sex worker told me: “Here, one has to make life and death decisions so as to survive. The locals who are our main clients will never agree to use condoms. Some know they are very sick and all they want is to spread their HIV to us,” says Afeworki Hailu. She is still nursing a knife stab on her thigh which she earned from a client when she insisted that he uses a condom, “He nearly killed me but I managed to escape. When you tell men to use condoms they draw knives or guns on you.”

Phyllis Jones-Changa, of Family Health International, an NGO funded by the US Agency for International Development that works with most at-risk populations, describes HIV in Juba as a time-bomb. A study conducted in 2011 in four main states - Eastern, Western, Central Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal - placed HIV prevalence at 8 per cent. This is a sharp increase from the 3.1 per cent recorded in 2009. With the rise in HIV comes the agony of inaccessibility of ARVs, ill treatment of prostitutes in hospitals and the subsequent death of many girls who cannot even be transported for burial in their home countries.

The government of South Sudan is desperate to rein in sex trade. The paradox here is that most brothels are owned by ex-military officials, police men and the affluent. According to the girls, a remarkable number of GOSS officials also engage in sex with the prostitutes, albeit discreetly.

The government physically demolishes the brothels but they are soon reconstructed. An official from the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports terms the new 'cultural revolution' sparked by foreigners and scores of Southerners who returned after the secession as a catalyst for prostitution. “South Sudanese cultures which are embedded on good morals have been corroded by foreign influence. Most women and men are exporting their prostitution and crime skills to Juba and inculcating them in our people.”

Underage girls too are engaging in prostitution, causing a major headache to the ministry of Gender and Child Welfare. The growing numbers of prostitutes aged between12 to 14 is catalysed by the new wave of street children in Juba. “This is the price we are paying for peace,” says an official from the ministry who declined to be named. Noting that the secession of South Sudan from Sudan was a huge accomplishment, he adds that the country is overwhelmed by a huge number of returnees, most of who are jobless and end up in all manner of crimes.

But neither Auma nor Anyango is concerned by the stigma attached to foreigners and sex trade. Neither do they care if the authorities are destroying the sex camps. They are hell bent on making ends meet and finally returning to Kenya with loads of money.“I had to make a brutal decision. I abandoned my husband and children for quick money here,” admits Anyango. I met Anyango and Auma at Jebel market; one of the biggest markets in Juba.

Girls flock this market to trade in sex for any price. They charge anything from South Sudanese pound (SDG) 10 to 100 (Sh315-3,145). Some have rented small rooms within the market. Others convert their business premises into lodges at night. Jebel has an estimated 600 to 800 prostitutes.

“Here, we sleep with anyone that looks like a man, including young boys; as long as they can part with the pounds,” says Anyango. She has no remorse for abandoning her family. On a good day, she can make 100SDG (Sh3,145) which she considers a radical departure from the Sh100 she earned daily in Kibera.

In Juba however, Anyango’s earning is considered meagre owing to the high cost of living. An ordinary meal of white rice, beef and a cool drink costs 30 SDG (Sh945). In other sections of Juba, one needs at least 600 pounds to enjoy a decent meal. Anyango and her sister rents a room for 50SDG per day which means that they have to work extra hard to break even.

Failure to pay rent would compel them to move deeper into the compound, past the garbage heaps, to very dilapidated shanties, which is difficult to attract clients. Noting that daily rent might be hard to come by, the sisters strategise by having regular clients, so called ‘steady boyfriends' who in turn pay their rent and food. “This means we have to remain attractive to our clients, lest they find other meat elsewhere.”

Most women I interviewed blamed poverty for their plight: “No one would want to leave their families and come to sell their bodies here,” says Mary Wangui, a bar operator who rents space at night for sex clients. She says the high rate of poverty, especially among Kenyan women has forced them to ‘diversify’. “Most women who rent my rooms are over 40 years; some have families back home but prefer to do prostitution in Juba.” The bar owner introduces me to three women who are ailing from HIV complications. “We are waiting to die and be buried here. Since we got this disease from local men we have to spread it here,” says one.

At the Juba Teaching Hospital, the major government hospital, some sex workers decry harassment by local nurses and negligence by doctors. Those with no local ‘God-fathers’ or whose visas have expired bear the heaviest brunt as they are mistreated. “In my routine checkups, the nurses discovered that my CD4 count was so low and all they could tell me is to go and die in my country,” confesses Margarita from Uganda. Brothel areas have no proper health facilities save for pharmacies that over-price the drugs.

The Child Act of South Sudan 2008 prohibits child prostitution but poverty, homelessness, and lack of a defined family unit encourages the vice. Achan is a 14-year-old Dinka girl who lost both parents during the war. She has no recollection of where her siblings or other relatives are. She sleeps in the cold, just outside Konyokonyo market, one of the oldest markets in Juba and the dirtiest of all. It has since been demolished to pave way for new, cleaner structures.

Though shy and naïve, Achan looks older than her age. She is inured to the cruel life. She agrees to tell me her ordeal through a translator. “I exchange sex for food, water or soap. Sometimes a group of police men who make night patrols rape me till morning and do not offer me anything.” When lady luck befalls her, she is invited by other street girls to service truck drivers at Gumbo, a major transit point for many long distance truck drivers.

She has never used a condom because she has no access to it. Her peers are lucky enough to be employed as part time bartenders at night, where they also sleep with men for as little as 3SDG. Her wish is to work as a brothel prostitute because this will assure her of a bed, toilet and bathing water. CCC’s research also revealed that women pimps take advantage of underage local girls by forcefully taking them and selling them to male clients.

No love in Juba, only sex

Sex workers in Juba have one mission - to make money. No one has time for love. At Near Bros ‘Lodge’, home to a mixture of Kenyan, Ugandans and Congolese sex workers, I meet Stella Njeri. Stella does not even look at the faces of her clients: “I cannot even tell the colours of their underwears,” she says. All she cares about is how much she can make in each encounter. Another Congolese quoted by CCC in their 2011 Action research says that she has never enjoyed sex, “I do it without any emotions. It is like the way you use your computer in the office or a cup to drink water."

Another Kenyan girl told how she shares her men with her girlfriends, if they are unlucky to get clients. “I usually have a steady client and when he finishes with me, he is free to sleep with my three other friends while I watch.” Is she not jealous? Jealousy does not count here. She says they all came to get money and not love.

In this lodge, I discover that Kenyan girls distinguish themselves from the rest. They will never agree to sleep with a man without protection, unlike their Ugandan and Congolese counterparts. They reveal that most Kenyan girls are educated and exposed and will never agree to stoop low, at whatever cost. “Even if it is about money, one has to think of the dangers involved. We buy our own condoms at 5 Sudanese Pounds or sometimes get them for free from UNFPA and other NGOs.”

Damaris Umutoni is a beautician by day and a sex worker at night; a situation replicated by many girls in Juba, as a means of supplementing their daily income. She left Uganda in 2010. Her parents had died leaving her with the burden of catering for her siblings: “We literally foraged for food and I couldn’t stand by and watch my younger ones dying while I could do something to change the scenario." Umutoni left Kampala for Gulu, Northern Uganda. She started selling her body. She would later befriend a South Sudanese man who took her to Juba and took full advantage of her. “The man enjoyed all manner of sex with me without even caring to use a condom.”

He even acted as her pimp by soliciting sex on her behalf from other men and never bothered to pay her a single dime. Her sexual freedom arrived when she discovered Customs market. Customs is a major sex hot spot located along the main road from Yei into Juba town, between the Dr John Garang Mausoleum and the Juba University roundabouts. Here, she was able to network with fellow Ugandans who showed her the tricks of trade. She can now negotiate her own price and send money to her siblings back home.

When a Juba girl tells you she works for the ‘UN’, she means she can offer service to any man, anywhere and at any price. Auma and Anyango admit that the trade is surrounded by many risks: “You are either worrying about the wrath of the police or being infected with the deadly HIV or the amount of money you need to send back home,” says Auma, adding that at any given minute, one has to be worrying about something.

The current political situation in South Sudan, termed as precarious by the international community, has done little to deter the efforts of sex workers. Police patrols have been intensified in major hotspots, including Jebel, and even though many foreign girls are nabbed for lack of necessary papers, majority walk their way to freedom by offering free sex to policemen. Ajok Deng, a social worker, descries the double standards that some police apply when dealing with prostitutes, “Why would a police demand for sex and at the same time pretend to be offering security?”

Trafficking for sex

The Counter-Trafficking Act, signed into law by President Mwai Kibaki has been touted as a milestone in curtailing the trafficking in persons. It offers protection to trafficking victims in Kenya. The law gives a 30-year jail term or a hefty fine of Sh30 million for convicted traffickers. This notwithstanding, traffickers are still engaging in the act despite the penalties.

Scores of women I interviewed admitted that they were victims of trafficking. A simple internet advertisement that read, ‘Waitress jobs available in Juba, attractive salary, accommodation offered, visas & work permits organized for you’ landed Beatrice Mugambi in jeopardy. She fell into the scam of an unscrupulous recruiting agency that once had offices in Nairobi’s River Road area. “I parted with Sh150, 000,” she says. This caused a financial dent in her family as her father had to sell a huge chunk of land to ensure that her daughter would be gainfully employed in Juba. On the material day, Beatrice met with her agent at the Kampala Coach Bus terminus where she would be introduced to five other ‘beneficiaries’ of the waitress job.

The agent accompanied them to Juba and ensured that all border regulations were complied with. “She was very good to us and ensured that we had meals and drinks at every stop. On arrival at Nimule, the border of Uganda and South Sudan, they were each given $50 to pay for their visas. Upon arrival in Juba the woman took them to Gumbo brothels near Juba Bridge hotel. This is when it dawned on them that they had been duped.

“We started as cleaners and laundry women around the brothels. The woman later oriented us into the prostitution job. She lied to us that we would work as waitresses when the completion of the ‘big’ hotel was done. The woman (agent) could use derogatory words, often telling the girls that what they couldn’t do with their hands, they could perfect it with their genitals. Soon Beatrice and her co-workers were immersed in prostitution.

Evans Kimoni, director of employment at the National Employment Bureau cautions Kenyans to be wary of fake recruiting agencies. In the wake of the sufferings that domestic workers undergo in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kimoni says that people should be extra careful. “The ministry is aware that some of the recruitment agents purporting to recruit workers are not genuine. They are exploiting Kenyans. No worker should agree to pay any fees as such; expenses are paid by the employer," he says. He adds that anyone planning to seek employment abroad should ensure they have a valid contract. Most people, he says, are ignorant and travel without knowing which job they are going to do. “Some do not bother to inquire about the salary or duration of contract.”

“When an agency claims to offer larger than life employment packages, put a question mark,” he says, adding that his ministry is open for all inquiries from people seeking employment abroad. His department has availed a list of all legitimate recruiting agencies. The list is posted on the ministry’s website which was created with the help of the International Office of Migration.

So what measures has the ministry taken to crack down on rogue agencies? Kimoni says his department works together with the National Security Intelligence Service and the police to net rogue agencies and ensure they are arrested and charged in court. In worst case scenarios, these agencies are de-registered and its members forced to refund any money they might have taken from unsuspecting clients. “We de-register them and circulate the information in our websites that these agencies are fake and no longer exist.”

The ministry is working on modalities to ensure that foreign embassies accredited to Kenya, including Juba, have labour/employment attaches who will intervene on behalf of workers who are exploited by their employers. “We need to have government to government bilateral agreements as this will ensure that Kenyans seeking employment abroad are guided under clear terms and regulations,” says Kimoni.

Security bond

Kimoni says plans are underway to have a security bond introduced that would compel all employment agencies to deposit a certain amount of money to an insurance company as bond. This bond, to be signed between an employer and the government, will serve as a guarantee for anyone working overseas, so that in case of repatriation, the bond (money) would be used to transport the worker back home.

“The purpose of the bond is to enable the repatriation of the employee in the event of unforeseen circumstances. The agency will also be required to execute a separate bond with a reputable bank or insurance firm for wages assessed at the equivalent of one month’s wage for all employees engaged in the agency.” Kimoni decries human trafficking of any form but is optimistic that his ministry, in conjunction with Foreign Affairs, ILO and IOM will curb the vice.

(All names of sex workers have been changed, to protect their identities)